Lori McKenna: making magic out of the mundane

One of country musics most in-demand songwriters, McKenna explores the ups and downs of long-term relationships with intimacy, depth and a literary flair

For Lori McKenna, everyday conversations and commonplace moments are always on the verge of blooming into a country song.

When shes joking with her husband, Gene whom she met in third grade and married aged 19 about how, despite being in their 40s and having five kids they, too, used to be cool, shell write a song and call it We Were Cool. When shes folding laundry and hears a joke on Modern Family about overbearing mothers, shell insist on writing a song using the jokes imagery and calling it The Bird & the Rifle, which will end up becoming the title track to her next album.

Or, when she sits down and, like so many parents, talks with her husband about how hard it is to raise truly grounded kids in todays world, those sentiments will serve as the foundation of Humble and Kind, a song that became a No 1 hit for Tim McGraw earlier this year and has sold close to 1m copies.

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McKenna has been conjuring magic out of mundanity for 20 years, ever since she started out in her late 20s as a nervous singer-songwriter on the Boston folk circuit. She grew up writing poetry and listening to 70s singer-songwriters such as Carly Simon, Neil Young and Carole Kingin the middle-class suburb of Stoughton, where she has lived her entire life.

Those musicians were the touchstones of McKennas first records, folky, unvarnished, acoustic collections released on small labels, until 2005, when Faith Hill got a hold of McKennas music and used several of her songs to form the backbone of her multiplatinum album Fireflies. Today, McKenna has become one of the most in-demand songwriters in country music, sought after for her penchant for literary detail and ability to concoct adult narratives with emotional weight.

On Friday, McKenna will be releasing her 10th record, The Bird & the Rifle, a delicately arranged, beautifully rendered collection of songs that highlight her narrative approach to songwriting. Whereas there were more stories and characters on the last record [2014s Numbered Doors], I felt like this record could be one character in different places in their life and relationships, she says.

The many variations on that same character, whether its the middle-aged narrator struggling through a rough patch in a long-term relationship on Wreck You, or the distraught woman driving home after an empty hook-up on Halfway Home, are all grounded in McKennas plainspoken pathos. I write what I write more because of whats in my head and heart, she says, than because of whats around me.

In conversation, McKenna is gracious and self-effacing. She attributes her current bout of commercial success to a mix of good fortune and being stubborn enough to stick around for as long as she has.

Its fitting that Lori would write a song called Humble and Kind, because she is both of those things, says the singer-songwriter Brandy Clark, who has written songs with her several times. Shes so unassuming. You never feel like she thinks shes better than anybody else.

In her music, McKenna zeroes in on details the loose change in a car ashtray, the smell of last nights smoke being rinsed out in the shower, the Walgreens parking lot where teenagers dream away their Saturday nights letting such specifics do much of the emotional heavy lifting. The highlight of Humble and Kind, which McKenna performs on her new record, comes when she interrupts her list of life lessons (dont expect a free ride from no one, visit grandpa every chance that you can) with a suggestion to eat root beer popsicles.

McKenna even extends her understated poeticism to something as dull as the album thank you note, a place where artists typically rattle off a list of producers, session musicians, publicists and managers. She thanks every single person who bought a ticket, called a friend, got a babysitter, took an Uber, found a parking spot, filled a meter, transforming an otherwise rote industry convention into a bizarrely moving depiction of modern American adulthood, or, in other words, into a Lori McKenna song.

Over the past few years, much has been made of the new traditionalist resurgence among artists like Kacey Musgraves and Chris Stapleton, a movement thats risen in prominence against the backdrop of the type of male-dominated, party-fuelled bro country thats maintained a stronghold on radio for years. During this same time, McKenna has experienced several of the biggest successes of her career. In addition to Humble and Kind, she cowrote the biggest country song of 2015, Little Big Towns Girl Crush, and earned a top 10 in 2014 with RaeLynns God Made Girls.

While Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson have been much lauded for their renegade macho renaissance, McKenna has been quietly reshaping country from the inside out. When Humble and Kind topped the charts in April, McKenna became the first artist other than Taylor Swift to earn a sole songwriting credit for a No 1 in nearly five years. And songs like Girl Crush a near-a cappella soul ballad about desiring another woman (though it turns out thats because shes with the man the singer yearns for), and Humble and Kind, a celebration of familial compassion that harkens back to turn-of-the-21st-century anthems such as Lee Ann Womacks I Hope You Dance have helped expand and reshape the boundaries of what might constitute a hit record in contemporary country.

Clark thinks McKennas distance from Nashville offers her a unique perspective. Lori has enough Nashville in her to write killer songs for the market, she says, But she has enough distance to not be scared to write a song like Girl Crush. Thats one of the things about her thats crucial: shes not so ingrained that she wouldnt think to write a song like that.

Clark recalls the time she and McKenna were writing Three Kids No Husband, a song thats quickly emerged as a fan favorite on Clarks new album. Clark was amazed when McKenna suggested using the phrase hair net job to describe the main characters work. I remember thinking, Wow, Ive never heard anybody say that phrase.

Lori writes outside the box in a lot of ways, adds Dave Cobb, who produced Loris new record. At the same time, its still relatable. When she says something, youre like, Thats exactly what happened to me. She has that kind of power with the pen.

Romance and regret

Ninety-nine percent of the worlds lovers are not with their first choice, Willie Nelson once said. Thats what makes the jukebox play. Its an oft-recited quote, one that speaks to countrys almost comical reliance on morose heartbreak.

But McKennas music, beginning with her 1998 debut, has always complicated Nelsons proverb. For her, the emotional DNA of country music loneliness, confusion, desire, loss, restlessness is never limited merely to those enduring devastating breakups nor those regretting their romantic pasts.

I havent lived that story, because Ive been married forever, McKenna says when discussing the loneliness after a one-night stand portrayed in her song Halfway Home. But all of my friends have, and everybody, to one extent or another, knows that feeling.

In modern country music, married couples are often portrayed either as fantastically in love or as a one-dimensional symbol of stability in contrast with a romantically troubled protagonist. But in songs such as One Man, Sometimes He Does and <a draggable=”true” href=”http://lorimckennafans.com/numbered-doors-album/good-marriage/” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>Good Marriage, McKenna portrays the steep ups and downs of long-term relationships with a deep empathy. She tends to focus on otherwise contented adults often happily married to their first choice at their moments of doubt and destruction. Wreck You, the lead single on her latest record, addresses that sense of sabotage, the singer considering driving away from her marriage. Its so powerful and relatable, Cobb says of the song. A lot of people probably think that way in their relationships.

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That same sensibility can be found just as readily in the music McKenna writes for other artists. In 2013, Little Big Town earned a hit cowritten with McKenna with Your Side of the Bed. Like Wreck You, it depicts a couple distanced from one another that bears the songwriters unmistakable sensibility.

With so many recording artists eager to add deeper, more adult perspectives to their music, these days Lori McKenna is as busy as ever. Songwriters ranging from Brandy Clark to Taylor Swift are constantly visiting her home to write. About once a month, she travels to Nashville. Lately, shes been cowriting with trusted colleagues over Skype, which she enjoys because nobody has to get out of their pajamas.

Does McKenna have any specific goals left as a songwriter, any artists or colleagues on her songwriting bucket list? Apart from a vague desire to try her hand at some top 40 pop songwriting, not really. But she feels like she still has so much more to say. The brilliant thing about songwriting is you can never know it all, she says. Theres always something more to learn.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/jul/27/lori-mckenna-interview-the-bird-and-the-rifle

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